by Chris Bertram on October 9, 2003

Some sort of mad puritanism seems to be afflicting parts of the blogosphere. Oliver Kamm (in comments to Harry Hatchet , then Natalie Solent and Stephen Pollard have been dogmatically asserting that government should limit itself to the provision of public goods, the assurance of basic rights and to treating citizens justly (though they disagree on what that means). Compassion, according to them, is a virtue (if it is a virtue) that should be exercised by individuals in a private capacity and not by government. But that just looks far too austere.

If “government” here is taken to mean all public officials acting in their public capacity (as it should be), then I’m pretty sure most people, including, I hope, the writers I just mentioned, believe that justice should be tempered by mercy. Now the relationship between mercy and compassion is a little bit obscure. Certainly, there can be instances of mercy where the merciful party isn’t acting from the motive of compassion. So when Caesar pardons the condemned in deference to the crowd’s wishes, it isn’t necessary that anyone is feeling compassionate. But I take it that, when judges, or tax inspectors, or social security officials use their discretion to exact lesser penalties than they might in the light of the human situation of the person in their power, compassion is often the relevant motive. Indeed, a person completely lacking in compassion for others would be a very bad candidate for any position of authority, within the state or elsewhere, because they would lack the capacity to judge when it would be right to act mercifully or would try to emulate that capacity in a clunky external kind of way by copying the behaviour of those who do have the disposition to be compassionate. I guess these writers are misled because they rightly reject the idea that a kind of gooey sentimentality could be the basis for social or welfare policy. But basing such policy on justice doesn’t exclude, and I think requires, a space for the virtue of compassion.

(There’s much more to be said, of a somewhat involved kind, in this area, about the relationship between compassion and the motive to justice, between compassion and the requirement of civility among citizens, and about compassion and positive duties of aid.)



dsquared 10.09.03 at 3:08 pm

Particularly objectionable coming from Pollard, since his other line is that we were morally obliged to fight a f’kng *war* in the name of compassion.


Iain Murray 10.09.03 at 3:12 pm


I have a feeling that what you’re talking about (at least historically) in the behavior of public officials isn’t compassion (fellow-feeling) but clemency (the gentle touch). Clemency has political advantages – as Caesar himself recognized. In particular, I think, it has the advantage over compassion of allowing for gentle treatment of people you’re not particularly sympathetic towards. So one can exhibit clemency towards one’s political enemies, something that would often not be done if compassion were the motive.

Indeed, one might argue that a compassionate person would be a bad dispenser of authority because they will tend to bias their decisions towards those to whom they feel the most compassion. Clemency, on the other hand, is even-handed.

I’m going from the Latin definitions of these terms, by the way, so please feel free to correct me if modern moral philosophy views compassion more broadly than I’ve defined it.


Nabakov 10.09.03 at 3:17 pm

And why should virtues be seen as as fungibles, to be bundled back and forth between the public and private sectors?


dsquared 10.09.03 at 3:22 pm

I do think it’s an interesting question, though; if (as appears to be the current line) the reason for going round the world to fight a war is that we simply had to release those poor people from their suffering, then why doesn’t the same reasoning work for asylum-seekers, single mothers, etc? I’d guess that liberal hawks like Norman Geras don’t have this problem, but it seems like a glaring inconsistency for the starboard half.


Jeremy Osner` 10.09.03 at 4:11 pm

I think there’s a distinction to be made somehow between compassion on the part of government (i.e. written into statute) and compassion (or as Mr. Murray notes clemency) on the part of the officials of government.


Chris 10.09.03 at 4:44 pm

Iain, isn’t clemency more akin to mercy? But you raise a good point about terminology and I don’t think that it is particularly stable in the literature. So, for instance, Elizabeth Anderson in her paper “What’s the point of equality?” (Ethics 109 (1999): 287-337) distinguished between “pity” and “compassion”. When we pity someone, according to her, we respond to their relative suffering (which she thinks is demeaning to them), whereas when we are compassionate we respond to their suffering as an absolute. I think that’s a good distinction, but not one that corresponds to an natural use of language.

The point you make about even-handedness is well-taken, though. So justice still has a role to play. But it certainly isn’t the whole story a good judge, or a good manager for that matter, has got to be able respond to the human particularity of the individual and cases they encounter and that does require the capacity to imagine the suffering of others. Just imagining it isn’t enough, though, because sadists can do that too. A repugnance at suffering and desire to alleviate it has to enter the picture also.


Stoffel 10.09.03 at 8:15 pm

In America at least, charitable giving is the first thing to disappear when financial times are rough–at exactly the time when such giving is needed most. Relying on private compassion over a strong social safety net only works when times are good.


Micha Ghertner 10.10.03 at 3:46 am

I have a response up on Negative and Positive Compassion?


Natalie Solent 10.10.03 at 10:54 am

Micha Ghertner and Iain Murray have already made the two main points I would have made (respectively ‘coercive compassion isn’t really compassion’, and ‘there is a distinction between “tempering justice with mercy” and compassion as an organising principle’) – which is my excuse for the bitty nature of the points that follow.

1) Compassion as a motive for action is a great and good thing. But it cannot of itself tell you what to do for the best, and the pretence it can is dangerous for the reasons already covered. Let me use the analogy of love. Love is good yet people who love each other can still do each other harm. I would even go so far as to say that there are certain sorts of harm that specifically happen when people think love absolves one of having to act sensibly or fairly. “I’m only doing this because I love you” can be said legitimately but is frequently abused. There’s a whiff of power there, too, that also comes into compassion interactions if you aren’t careful.

2) …which brings me to my next point. If I’m an ordinary person dealing with government it is much more dignified for me to _claim my rights_ rather than _ask for compassion_ . Note that this point could be made by people with very different ideas of where rights end.

3) Modern welfare states try to have it both ways. They want to be admired for being compassionate yet also want the recipients to feel that they are only claiming their rights. This makes for oleaginous “givers” and graceless recipients.

4) When it comes to welfare, compassion is one of my main reasons for opposing it. I think in the long term it gives people horrible, violent, futile lives. So I see no contradiction between that and my view that compassion for the Iraqi people was a legitimate motive for going to war. Of course in both areas, war and welfare, policy decisions must also take into account factors of prudence and justice.

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